Picture this. You’re walking down the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin in the late ‘60s and you come upon a shop with a tasteful window display of – get ready for it – a wide variety of what are commonly called sex toys. Now remember, Kurfürstendamm Strasse, more commonly known as Ku’Damm, is roughly equivalent to Fifth Avenue in New York. It is not some sleazy or back alley section where an American would expect to find a sex shop.
So, you decide to investigate. Not because you want to buy anything, of course, but purely to satisfy your journalistic inquisitiveness. Low and behold, when you get inside, there are small shopping carts so you won’t have to carry all your sex toys to the counter bundled up in your arms. The shop is clean, well lit and, as you survey the aisles set up almost like a grocery store, you see several couples strolling among the displays and filling up their carts.
No, you haven’t entered the Twilight Zone. These kinds of sex shops proliferated in Germany at the time McCurry spent his time on the Hill there. And, it was common to find couples talking about their latest discoveries … and how well they worked.
Frankly, I would have expected that by today, the brick and mortar variety of sex store would have yielded to the digital age. Apparently the Germans, though, like to see hard copies of their choices. If you do a Google search for sex shops in Berlin, you will find they still proliferate. Consider how this one store describes itself:
Berlin’s kingdom of kinkiness is filled with sexual hardware that caters to every conceivable fantasy and fetish, though more of the naughty than the nice kind. This is the place to go for that custom-tailored rubber suit.
Along with the sex toy stores and strip clubs, Germany also had a thriving industry in legal prostitution, which still exists today. McCurry didn’t travel in areas where prostitutes plied their trade in Berlin, but he did go to the world-famous Reeperbahn in Hamburg, a port city that needed to satisfy the desires of sailors from all over the world. Along with his German buddy, Horst Wachter, McCurry spent a couple days there, purely as a sightseer, of course.
If one thinks walking into a Berlin sex shop during the ‘60s was like entering the Twilight Zone, a tour along the Reeperbahn at the time was like landing on another planet. While I don’t know for sure, I suspect the Reeperbahn is pretty much the same today is it was during McCurry’s visits. As one walked down the street, in some areas prostitutes sat in display windows. If one wanted sample their wares, he need only go to a porthole in the window to talk about prices and choices and then enter through the buildings front door.
In other areas, there were mazes built out of wood. A person would walk in and through the maze until he found his dream girl. She would then lead him to an adjacent hotel, probably just for a drink and conversation. What really surprised McCurry were the signs over all the entrances to these establishments: No one under 18 allowed.
I love the way About.com describes the Reeperbahn of today:
The Reeperbahn is the most famous street in Hamburg; you’ll find many great bars, restaurants, theatres, and clubs here, along with sex shops, sex museums, erotic theaters, and strip clubs.
This eclectic mix makes the Reeperbahn an interesting and fascinating place to visit for travelers and locals alike; the district is the second most popular Hamburg attraction after the harbor and attracts all kinds of visitors, from night owls and students, to theatergoers and tourists.
Somehow, I can’t imagine many of the American travelers of 1968 found sex shops, sex museums, erotic theaters, and strip clubs along with the display tactics of the houses of prostitution fascinating places to visit. The ghosts of American Puritans would have risen up and cast a spell on them.